Along the coast of Pangasinan, a Philippine province on the island of Luzon, sea air permeates early morning strolls. Aaron Verzosa and his parents were on a quest for fresh bread to start their day. They turned away from the water toward the town square market where all the action resides—fresh seafood, produce, then finally, pan de sal, those hot bread rolls the size of a little golden fist dusted with bread crumbs and steaming like it had life still in it.
It was an epiphany, recalls Verzosa. This pan de sal is something that he could fashion from heirloom wheat grown in Washington, something that could fill his new Hillman City restaurant with the smell of bread, something that’s decidedly Pacific Northwest and spiritually Filipino. And that’s the exact point of Archipelago.
On the long stretch of Rainier Ave that runs through south Seattle like an artery that pumps life into its community, resides Archipelago at 5607 Rainier Ave South, set to open this summer. What once housed Eyman’s Pizza will soon serve progressive Filipino American cuisine from chef Aaron Verzosa who most recently worked in research and development at Modernist Cuisine, and before that the Harvest Vine. If there’s anyone who could forge a contemporary path in Filipino food, it’s this guy. He plans to use his five years of experience working for the Bellevue-based cooking lab to push the island nation's cuisine beyond the traditional, comforting dishes many are familiar with, asking questions like “How can we get to those flavors—those buildings blocks of Filipino food—and offer new insights into our own cuisine?”
His answer, in part, is using ingredients sourced entirely from the Pacific Northwest, as is the culinary modus operandi here, but for Verzosa the challenge lies in creating dishes without wielding imported goods—the rice, the soy sauce, the fish sauce—that have been the core of Filipino cookery.
This approach feels truest to Versoza and his wife and partner in the project, Amber Manuguid. They both were born and raised in Washington, and their story is a local one, a Pacific Northwest one, and a most American tale of two people sending dispatches from the diaspora through reimagined Filipino fare.
When people think of something classic, their minds might go to pancit, says Verzosa, a rice noodle–based dish. But we don’t grow rice in our cool, soggy climate, rather “we have some of the best wheat in the country.” The region that Verzosa’s mother’s from, Ilocos, makes an egg- and wheat-based noodle called the miki noodle. Archipelago’s opening menu promises a miki noodle dish made with local duck eggs and Washington wheat. “That’s something that we can draw on from our culture but also be very authentic to this area.”
The same ethos is applied to other classics like sinigang, a very sour and savory broth that gets its piquant personality from tamarind. Again, tamarind producers we are not. Verzosa’s been testing his sinigang for two years now, imbuing his version with electrifying acid by way of Northwest granny smith apples, tomatillos, or rhubarb—all the while keeping in mind each alternative's Northwest seasonality.
Beyond ingredients, though, Manuguid and Verzosa are flipping the script in another way: Archipelago will be tasting menu only. They estimate somewhere around eight to 12 courses for dinner with two seatings per night. It makes sense given this chef's resume—which includes staging with chef David Toutain, whose Paris restaurant has earned a Michelin star—but the couple's reasons for entering Archipelago into the realm of fine dining are manifold.
They acknowledge the appeal of Filipino homecooking—the typical buffetlike array of comfort classics that intermingle on the plate—a love letter in the form of lumpia and soy-sauce-and-vinegar-braised chicken adobo. But so often immigrant food is seen as only humble food or only ethnic food. “When you have stereotypes of a certain cuisine or culture it does become difficult to represent other parts of the spectrum, from fast casual to fine dining,” says Verzosa.
“If we don’t start to try to break down these barriers,” adds Manuguid, “we’re always going to be separated out.”
A fine dining concept, they say, helps to slow down and tell the story of their food course by course. Which isn’t exactly new phenomenon. There’s been a Filipino food movement afoot, gurgling into the national culinary zeitgeist one headline at a time. A recent New York Times article affirms Filipino food’s place in the pantheon of mainstream American dining. D.C. restaurant Bad Saint was number two on Bon Appetit’s 2016 list of Best New Restaurants in America. Archipelago will soon add its voice to this national conversation.
On a cool Friday evening in September, people gathered at Hot Stove Society, Tom Douglas's cooking school inside Hotel Andra on Fourth Avenue. Overlooking the roaring fire in the foyer, folks sipped Philippine coffee and, at the bar, tasted lambanog, a liquor made from distilled coconut flower sap. But a quick scan of the space revealed that most attendees were satisfied with a bottle of San Miguel pilsner in hand. Local chefs, industry folks, and visitors milled about the Belltown venue where the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs had come as the first stop of its five-city culinary tour in North America. There was no better time to spread the good word: Filipino food is, and always has been, quite legit.
For three days the DFA, alongside Amy Besa, lovingly known as the godmother of Filipino food and her chef-husband Romy Doroton of Purple Yam, the couple's restaurant with locations in Manila and New York City, met with fourth generation Filipino farmers in Wapato, Washington, held panels about the history of Filipino cuisine in Seattle, and collaborated with chefs on a night market feast. But this particular evening was all about the indigenous ingredients of the Philippines. They hauled in some 50 artisanal goods for their trip: cassava wafers from Bohol, pure patis fish sauce, mangosteen jam, coconut sap vinegar, confit garlic.
Everyone made serpentine paths as they plucked bites off butcher block prep islands throughout Hot Stove. Meanwhile I lingered over a warm bowl of champorado, a porridge of heirloom rices, rich Malagos chocolate, topped with robusta coffee ice cream. The orchestration of it all was impressive.
It happened like a row of dominos. The DFA reached out to Besa, who contacted Carmel Laurino, the founder of the Seattle-born-yet-Manila-based coffee company Kalsada, who then connected with her friend Aaron Verzosa. From there Verzosa enlisted the help of chefs Melissa Miranda (Bar del Corso, Musang), Irbille Donia and Justin Legaspi of Lahi (Legaspi is also a chef at Renee Erickson’s Bateau), Chera Amlag of Hood Famous Bakeshop, Herschell Taghap (T-Doug Restaurants), and Elmer Dulla (Salare), plus Joey Sequinia (Harvest Vine), and Nelson Daquip (Canlis). It was a heavy-hitting roster of Seattle talent. Indeed, after collaborating for this event and meeting for the first time, they decided to establish a coalition together dubbed Ilaw, which roughly translates to “a source of light” in Tagalog.
And that evening Besa enlightened us all.
Besa spoke to a room full of those Filipino cuisine bearers, many of whom are second generation immigrants that, unlike Besa, grew up in the States in the space between mom-cooked comfort food classics and Pacific Northwest farm-to-table staples. And she recognized this. To the younger generation huddled in that room—silent and watching and absorbing every word—she urged them to go forth and create their own food, “You cannot promote Filipino food until you connect it to the flavors of home,” Besa reminds them. She talked about farmers and ingredients that are pulled from Philippine soil, fish purloined from Philippine waters. But mostly, to the congregation of teary-eyed chefs she met not 48 hours ago, the culinary torchbearer wrapped them in encouragement, hugged them with words that said We’ve been there before and now it’s your turn to make whatever’s truest to you.
Later I caught up with Besa and asked her to elaborate. “What do you mean by this exactly, is this a kind of authenticity that’s more compromising or fluid?” I grasped, searching for the deepest meaning of the word. What I got: “Authenticity is bullshit,” asserted Besa between nibbles of duck leg adobo made with Sorsogon-sourced coconut sap vinegar. Not to say that it's not real if the richness of Filipino food doesn't come from the homeland, but rather, she says “Filipino Americans need to look at their environment.”
Far from the equatorial climes of the Philippines, Archipelago’s intimate setting—an open kitchen, one long table, 14 seats in all—will be a space where Northwest sensibilities meet the tropical motifs of Old Manila’s colonial architecture style. With a background in design, Manuguid will see to the restaurant's decor, which will ultimately be homey and welcoming, she says, much like a country and its cuisine can be. Archipelago's space, as does its food, will be defined by Manuguid and Verzosa's journeys.
Sure, it was almost like a prize for him to be able to create his iteration of pan de sal, a roll as fitting in Pangasinan as it is in Rainier Valley. Verzosa's version's made with Nash Organic's red wheat but is just as alive as pan de sal proffered from a morning market vendor.
It was on that same trip to the Philippines a few years ago with his parents that Verzosa had another bread-related epiphany. But his second revelation came from finding out that his great grandfather was the first baker in his dad's hometown somewhere along the very streets they were strolling down. (His great grandfather is also the only other person besides Verzosa to work in the food and drink world.) "I never knew that," says Verzosa. "My dad never told me that story for whatever reason, but I've always had an affinity for baking and a love for it." It just so happened that Verzosa was also working on Modernist Cuisine's Modernist Bread book at the time, another Pacific Northwest connection and bread-based sign that Archipelago is a restaurant of two lands but one singular story.
5607 Rainier Ave S, Hillman City
Planned opening: Early summer 2018
Aaron Verzosa (left) and Amber